Rudd and Abbott have a food fight on their hands

The Greens are getting proactive on food policy, taking the produce phenomenon to the national level. While the major parties may mock, they could yet end up with grass-laid egg on their face.

In a recent skit entitled ‘Farmers Market’, British comic duo Armstrong and Miller begin with a man telling a woman clutching a bag of supermarket-bought tomatoes that “I know where you can get exactly the same tomatoes, but for three times the price!”

It’s well worth a look if you haven’t seen it, if only for the chorus “farmers market, farmers market, I drive there in my Volvo and I park it” or the line about queues of “credulous masses of urban middle class”. 

As the skit suggests, there probably are charlatans out there shaking potatoes out of Coles bags, spattering them with mud, and selling them for a mark-up of 1000 per cent to those “credulous” customers. (To be fair there are also plenty of people selling novel, healthy food that just doesn’t appear at Coles or Woolies – organic Jerusalem artichoke anyone?)

Food has gripped the Australian imagination in recent years. What wall-to-wall renovation TV shows did for house prices in the mid-2000s, food shows such as Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules have turned on consumers to fresh, high-quality produce like never before. 

It was only a matter of time, therefore, before one of the major parties found a way to tap into this obsession. 

And it will surprise few to see that it’s the Greens who got there first. Labor did launch its “National Food Plan” in May, but it was focused on marketing Australia as a food brand and capitalising on the Asian ‘dining boom’ with food exports. Nary a shaved goats-cheese and quince hors d'oeuvre in sight.

But the Greens have taken a smarter approach in political terms – their 50-page policy document has plenty to please both farmers and the "credulous urban middle class" that is so prevalent in its single House of Reps seat of Melbourne, and other electorates the Greens will be eyeing at the 2016 election and beyond, such as the earthy Perth electorate of Fremantle and inner-Sydney's Grayndler. 

To achieve this broader appeal, the Greens have made the issue of food security central to their policy. Essentially, and contradicting most pro-globalisation economic theory, the Greens want Australia to grow and eat the best food in the world rather than import lots of cheap, nasty foods from abroad. 

That’s the same nationalistic streak we see running through Bob Katter’s Australia Party. Katter has warned numerous times that Australia could soon run out of food and be reliant on imports. 

Hmm? That’s a bit of a stretch for a country that currently exports about 60 per cent of its agricultural product. But the image works in the political consciousness – shiploads of Twinkie cakes and trans-fat oven-fried chips flood the nation while Australian farmers walk off the land. 

And that vision is not entirely fanciful. During the extended terms of trade boom Australian farmers and food processors have struggled to match the price of imported goods and Katter has warned in recent months of the impending “collapse of thousand of farms”, with not only tragic consequences for the families and communities that run them, but for the financial system propping them up (The Mad Hatter's loose in parliament, June 18). 

What both Katter and the Greens are talking about, is not Australia 'running out of food' so much as Australian food producing capacity withering, and failing to prepare us for a future in which, as the Greens say, “water is the new oil and land is the new gold”.

The Greens’ wide-ranging policy, which is fully costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, proposes to:

– Increase Commonwealth funding for agricultural research and development by 7 per cent each year (cost, $300 million);

– Fund a national network of 180 agricultural extension officers ($76.5 million);

– Award grants to rebuild local food systems connecting communities to their farmers ($65 million);

– Lower on-farm costs by funding the switch to renewable energy and greater energy efficiency ($100 million);

– Establish an independent National Biosecurity Authority and Biosecurity Commission ($30 million);

– Run a national food waste reduction campaign, increase funding for food emergency relief, and provide funding for research into financial mechanisms to avert avoidable post-harvest food waste ($20 million);

– Fund up to 800 new school kitchen garden projects and increase funds for adult nutrition education programs ($35 million).

That might all sound like organic pie in the sky, but with the Coalition and Labor still close to a 50-50 two-party-preferred vote there’s just the chance of a hung parliament. That would put at least a couple of these proposals on the Greens’, ahem, shopping list of negotiations with the major parties. 

Some of the policy’s proposals have been welcomed by the National Farmers Federation, although it continues to slam Greens-backed reforms such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, carbon pricing and Greens calls for bans on genetically modified foods. 

Overall, this is a strange piece of policy. It’s designed to build a long-term narrative for the Greens around sustainable agriculture, and while it appears to legitimately support farmers, it certainly has one eye firmly fixed on urban voters who may not understand the issues at all. 

It’s a lot like a hybrid plant – a good solid stem of research funding and biosecurity initiatives topped with a lovely flower for the city slickers to smell. It's the kind of policy you might find at a farmers market.

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